In Genesis, in the beginning, one of the first things God did was to create rest. On the seventh day, God rested. But first, God created rest. We usually think only of part of day 7, when God rested. But the text actually says that on the seventh day, God finished the work that God had done and God rested. God finished and God rested.
In Jewish thought, God’s rest was not a day off, or merely preparation for what was next. The ancient rabbis say that God’s rest was the completion of creation. The creation of rest itself – menuha in Hebrew – tranquility, serenity, peace, repose – rest in the deepest sense of fertile, healing stillness – this was the completion of God’s work. Until the creation of true rest – of Sabbath – creation itself was unfinished.
This is what Jesus is inviting the crowds to in today’s reading. What Jesus is inviting us to. True rest – Sabbath.
This passage lies in between two major sections of teachings. The first, the one we catch the tail end of in verses 16-19 is a discourse about John the Baptist. Jesus (and perhaps Matthew in his day) is reaching out to the followers of John and inviting them to his table. At the same time, he is criticizing the religious authorities, for their constant judgment of God’s messengers and rejection of God’s message. While God is busy sending emissaries, the religious leaders are busy bickering and feeling self-righteous, so that they miss God’s message altogether. Like Goldilocks in the Three Bears house, they are looking for a just-right Messiah. John the Baptist is too ascetic, too out-in-the-wilderness, so they decided he was possessed, that he had a demon. This one is too cold! Jesus is the exact opposite, too in the midst of human life, hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, he must be a drunkard. This one is too hot! No one is just right. Except themselves.
The passage after this is where Jesus begins teaching about the Sabbath, the passage you may have heard about the Sabbath being made for man and not man for the Sabbath. These same critics who are looking for their just-right Messiah believe that the law of the Sabbath is the yardstick for judging who is just right. The law will save them, they believe.
There was a saying, that if everyone in Israel would keep the Sabbath the Messiah would come. And so they kept the sabbath, and enforced the sabbath, and wielded the sabbath as a tool and even a weapon, until they lost sight of the Sabbath altogether, lost sight of that menuha – the tranquility, the rest, true rest, that God intended the rest that makes space for connection to one another and to God. Instead, they used Sabbath to divide and to judge and to create walls between who was in and who was out. They turned the Sabbath into a proxy for their pain at being occupied by a foreign government. They turned the Sabbath into a vehicle for their fear – of others, of the future, of their loss of control.
Instead of letting go and resting in Sabbath, instead of reveling in God’s creation of rest- of menuha – they tightened their fists and held on even harder. And the Sabbath was lost. They had no place to lay down their heavy burdens; no place to rest their weary hearts and weary heads and weary feet. Sabbath, the place of rest, became a battleground, a proving ground where only the most righteous were welcome. It became another burden to carry.
And Jesus is calling them out on it. To what will I compare this generation? You have forgotten how to rest in God and so you rest in judgement and fear. You have forgotten how to rest in relationship and so you rest in factions and bickering. Like children who are more concerned with who is in and who is out of their games.
But this is not a game. This is God’s Creation. And you are a part of it. And God’s creation is not complete without rest. You are not complete without rest. You who are hearing this, you who are reading this, you are not complete without rest. Real rest. Tranquility. Peace. A break from the onslaught. Time to process and to simply be.
This kind of rest is not much valued in our society. When we do talk about rest, it’s in more the a “work hard, play hard” context. You might rest from work, but it’s so that you can work more, work harder, work better. Rest for the sake of productivity.
Or you might rest by playing, by being a different kind of busy – the weekend warrior who never stops moving, who is always on the go – whose rest is restless. We all know that feeling, at the end of a long stretch of work or school, at the beginning of a vacation, the feeling of rest-less-ness, the need to be doing something, but unable to settle to any one activity because it is not necessary, and we are used to filling our days and weeks the necessary. Even our sleep is necessary, so that we can continue to produce, to be that busy, effective, productive person we need to be, in order to be acceptable.
This restlessness has a convenient bonus. Staying busy to the point of exhaustion, so that even our rest is fully active, so that sleep is all we can do when and if we stop moving – when we are that kind of busy, we don’t have time to think. We don’t have time to listen to our thoughts. Which is, I think, why we stay so very busy. Why we avoid that true rest of silence and contemplation. Because when we start to leave space for silence, we start to hear the inner voices – our self-critics, our shame, our worries, our fears, our pain. All those voices rise up to fill the space, and we would rather not hear them.
So we stay busy, and we turn on the noise. We seem to revel in the onslaught. We scroll through Facebook to feel busy, or we turn on the television to fill the silence, or we fill the void with food, or drink, or whatever else will numb us to the internal assault.
One of the greatest ways to fill the void, to avoid resting with our own thoughts, is to fill it with anger or hatred. To drown out our own pain with our judgments of others. The writer James Baldwin once said, “…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” And we will go to great lengths to avoid dealing with our pain. Even if it causes more pain. For us or for others.
But that is why Jesus issues this invitation. He invites those around him to stop fighting amongst themselves, to stop filling the silence with the busy-ness of bickering and judgment and just rest. You who are weary of the constant onslaught, you who are sick of the restless burden. Rest.
Because whatever pain and grief, shame and fear you are carrying, whatever you’re trying to dull with your restlessness, God’s voice is looking for a space, for a break in the noise, a tiny opening to enter in, so Jesus can pick up those burdens for us. Because you are not your pain. You are not your fear. You are not your busy-ness or your restlessness or your judgments. You are not the walls you build or the masks you wear to protect those tender places that you are avoiding with all your constant activity. What you are, is loved. What you are, is created for love and by love and in love to be loved and to be love for the world. And James Baldwin also said, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”
Jesus invites you to rest. Love invites you to take off the masks. To lay down your burdens. To admit that you are weary and in need of rest. To accept that you have been made by a creator who created rest as a necessary part, the necessary completion of creation.
Jesus will pick up the burden. The only thing you need to carry is his yoke, the yoke that connects us to God, and to one another. The yoke of love. Grace. Acceptance. Rest.
It may be difficult at first. It goes against everything we have learned. At first the pain or fear or grief will seem louder, as the other noises recede. But it was always there. And it is not who you are.
If you won’t lay your burdens down and rest for yourself, do it for others, for this neighborhood, for this community, for this world. You cannot help anyone else carry their burdens if you are weighed down by your own. You cannot welcome anyone else to rest if you will not rest yourself.
This summer, we at Peace are trying to make some space for rest. For ourselves, and for our world. Wednesday mornings the sanctuary is open for anyone who wants silent time, to catch up with their thoughts, to listen as the voice of pain recedes, and the voice of God grows louder.
But it turns out that’s super hard. We have a lot of learning to unlearn before we can do that. We need to learn how to rest ourselves before we can be a space of rest for others. So on Fridays, we’re having some training, learning some tools, so that we can begin to tune the radio dial in our heads, to let the static that is the world, our fears, our self-doubt, others’ expectations of us, our grief, our pain, our shame, the static that is our restlessness, fade. So that we can begin to tune into God’s voice. So that we can hear the sound of grace, creation, peace, healing, rest.
So take a moment right now.
Close your eyes if you are comfortable. Or Find a focal point – maybe the window here.
Let yourself relax. And listen.
There will be static, that’s okay. Notice it, and try not to tune in to it.
I’m not going to leave you here long. But take a few moments to simply be. To rest.
How was that?
Scary? Exhausting? Weird? Refreshing?
These are all right answers. All fine.
Come to me, all you who are weary. All you who are carrying heavy burdens. And I will give you rest. You know your burdens. You know your weariness.
And you know, because I am telling you right now, that you do no have to carry them any longer.
Jesus is calling you, offering, inviting, begging you, to lay them down. To find your rest in him. He will carry those burdens for you. Has already carried them for you, right up onto a cross, and down into a tomb. They have no power over you.
Let them go.